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Canada Steals the Show

Amy Vangsgard

Hollywood is one of our largest homegrown industries, employing on average 185,900. In 1998 it generated $74.3 billion (including tourism, local merchants and the hotel/motel industry). Not too shabby, eh? Some might say Hollywood is booming. Problem is, it’s losing its center. Last year it lost 23,500 jobs compared to 6,900 in 1990, and some estimate that by 2001, lost jobs in Hollywood each year could total some 22,500 to 36,000. Mind you, this trend does not concern the Will Smiths, the Steven Spielbergs, and the majority of other superstar actors, directors and producers. It’s working-class crews (grips, costumers, boom operators, carpenters, sound mixers, stunt people, extras, painters, etc.) and those employed in support industries (think equipment rental and catering) who are running out of work.

In June, the publication of the Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild–sponsored "U.S. Runaway Film and Television Production Survey," made front-page news in the L.A. Times, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, confirming most crew members’ fears that this isn’t just another lull in the biz.

I know what you’re thinking: Boo-hoo, poor costume designer can’t bill her cell phone to production and shop Fred Segal anymore. What do I care? Well, what about the cashier at Fred Segal, the waiter at the restaurant she patronizes, or the gal who cuts her hair? What about the tax that comes out of Ms. Costume Designer’s paycheck to support welfare and clean the street? Remember, not everyone in Flint, Michigan, worked at the GM plant.

Pointing fingers aim at Canada’s "labor rebate incentive programs," which give producers up to 35 percent off their bill if they use a Canadian crew, but still no one asks how there can possibly be concurrent boom and bust. What’s so maddening for Hollywood’s working-class employees is that they are cut off from their studio heads and executives, unable to voice concern about what they think is the bigger problem: a growing inequity of financial distribution.

Anyone can pick up a daily trade paper and read about the rising cost of production, and films leaving for Canada, but if a working-class schmuck cries foul and blames the guy at the top, executives will point out that the price tag attached to a movie is reaching an all-time high. They must cut corners someplace.

"[Business in Hollywood] still comes down to the fact that the executives and the stars and the director get paid disgusting amounts of money." Samantha Sullivan should know. A production manager for 10 years, Sullivan was the liaison between the crew and its producers. She took a good, hard look at the goings-on around her and stopped: "Why don’t we just admit what it is — greedy bastards making more money than they could possibly spend in a lifetime, and [they’re] going to piddle over whether a production assistant who drives the van and picks up trash gets $75 a day or $50. ‘Rising cost of production’ means there is enough money to pay everyone."

If this cutback scenario seems strangely familiar to you, check out the similarities between the recent job losses in Hollywood and the post–Cold War cuts in Southern California’s defense and aerospace industries. From the defense industry’s heyday peak (1988) to its darkest year of depression (1992), SoCal workers lost 75,000 jobs. In the last 10 years, Hollywood has lost 125,000 full-time production jobs. Although arguably more specialized in their skills than their Hollywood counterparts, defense and aerospace workers, despite millions of federal dollars spent on "economic adjustment" offices and grants to convert defense communities into civilian industrial centers, had a hard time relocating to new jobs.

Fortunately, these trends in Hollywood don’t include preproduction (scripting, casting) or postproduction (editing, computer graphics). So don’t expect to see tumbleweeds rolling down Sunset Boulevard anytime soon. Nevertheless, working-class crew members will tell you they are feeling the crunch.

Such is the case with a certain union soundman whose name will be withheld in case work comes in while he tries to figure things out.

"I was so hell-bent on getting into the union and the mainstream of things, now the only thing I can say to someone wanting to get into this line of work is, find your own personal niche, research it, talk to the people who have done it . . . If you’re just starting out, thinking you should move to Hollywood to get the big jobs and the big money, I’d suggest you talk to a few people like me and maybe you’ll think twice about it . . . I’m looking for my own way out and looking for where the money is, as opposed to saying, ‘Gee, I wish the money would come back.’"

Unions have heard plenty of complaints like this. Business representative Jim Osbourne of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees), Los Angeles’ largest crew union, says there’s a bigger picture to consider: â

"Are producers going to Canada just to get that 35 percent? No. It’s totally contrived to go to a foreign country with social medicine so you don’t have to pay into the union health, welfare and benefits . . . A producer is going to go where he can get the best deal. It’s the bad part of capitalism, the corporate self-denial, the ‘Let’s go to another country’ and then ‘Oh, sorry, but that’s your problem’ . . . We’re telling our guys to do what the grape pickers did — go stand outside the market and say, ‘Hey, pass on that cable subscription for a month’ or ‘Turn off those commercials for this product.’"

On the more introspective end, there are those looking inside and re-evaluating things. Rick Caprarelli, vice president of one of Hollywood’s largest independent prop houses, Hollywood Central Props, says they just pretend they’ve always run the place 25 percent down.

"You tighten up the ship you have, and of course you always look inside first and ask yourself, why is business leaving? Is it a little bit of me? Is it our business practices? I think if this whole thing cleans up [the industry] a little bit in that way, that’s good."

Then he adds, more optimistically, "There’s always going to be a product. There are 500 cable channels out there."

True. Ticket sales and ticket prices are on the rise. And, yes, films have always been shot outside the U.S. It seems that this time, though, Hollywood is transforming itself into a New World corporation, and by that we’re talking the same thing that happened with cars and clothes and electronics — five old rich guys in an office, the guy who brings them coffee, and the rest, a bunch of measly-waged workers, selling products to whom? A recent letter to the editor in the L.A. Times read, "My hat is made in China, my shirt in India, my pants in the Philippines, my shoes in Indonesia. So my movies are made in Montreal. So?"

In many ways, in upcoming months, working-class Hollywood will in fact realize why it matters if your movies are made in Montreal. The industry is made up of creative and feisty people, but they’re growing more bitter and disillusioned though confident they’ll figure a way out, adapt, or, as our anonymous soundman says, joking without smiling, "Start a lucrative career in the new Hollywood — sell Rolls-Royces."

 

 

For further information on letter-writing campaigns, contact film commissioner Ray Arthur at (760) 375-8202 or Chuck Warn and Andrew Levy at the Directors Guild of America at (310) 289-5333. Or contact pro-crew state Assembly Members Scott Wildman of Glendale (818-240-6330) and/or Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica (818-501-8991), authors of Assembly Bills AB 358 and AB 484 to keep film production in California.

Then, let Governor Gray Davis (916-445-2841) or Mayor Dick Riordan (213-847-2489) know how ya feel.

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